Finding Freedom

 

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Chapter One

Hadley did not know where she was.

Her lids were heavy with sleep and the unfamiliar smell of clean sheets surrounded her like a thick cloud. She became aware of a dull ache all over her body and she groaned. Hadley’s eyes peeked open, a milk white wall stared back at her, and it took only seconds for Hadley to realize she did not recognize this wall. Her eyes flew open and her head led the rest of her body in a violent jolt to a sitting position.

She felt each muscle when she moved. Her breathing was labored, a panic rose in her chest, her eyes alert, drinking in her surroundings, desperate for familiarity. Hadley’s hands felt the mattress beneath her, searching for familiarity or answers, the material gave under her hands but sprang back as she lifted them- a mattress made of clouds. It was easily the nicest bed she’d ever slept in - her childhood bed had been a firm, hand-me-down inherited from her parents when they bought a nicer bed. It had never bothered her, but then again, she had never known anything quite this squishy. Hadley’s hands explored the navy blue comforter and pillows, all down material. Her eyebrows wrinkled towards her nose in confusion, and as her heart slowed to a normal pace, her breathing slowing, she threw back the covers, winced at the movement but her attention drawn to her outfit - navy blue pajama pants and a white tank top, accented with thin gold stripes. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers not recalling when these clothes donned her body. The clothes felt new to their owner and as comfortable as the material was, it did not please the wearer. Her eyes scanned the room, her mind desperate for answers. What is this place? What are these clothes? Where did I get them?  Hadley was nervous her voice would sound foreign to her, so she spoke aloud, eager for the comfort of her own voice, “Where am I...?”

Her senses were waking up with the rest of her body and she heard noises coming from the first floor of whatever kind of building she was in. Pushing past the pain in her own body, she scooted to the edge of the queen sized bed, and slid off. As her feet met the floor, the weight of her own body and the weakness of her muscles nearly pulled her down, and her knees buckled under her. She caught herself on the nightstand beside her bed and took a deep breath. “Pull it together, Hadley” she murmured to herself. She heard sounds of female laughter and dishes being stacked and put away. Hadley padded slowly to her door, every step an effort, her feet cold against the hardwood floor, and as she pulled the door open and peeked out, a long, empty hallway greeted her. But the sounds of life on the first floor grew louder.

She went towards the voices, believing there would be answers where there were people. The stairs dumped Hadley out into a well-decorated living room filled with plush navy furniture, glass coffee and end tables, walls covered in ornate metal art, frames and mirrors. A TV screen replaced one of the walls but did not make any noise, glass doors that led to a porch sat against an adjacent wall, but the rest of the living room remained open, leaving the kitchen exposed. The smell of coffee hit Hadley’s nostrils and her stomach growled. She saw the girls before they saw her, a brunette with long silky hair whose height caught Hadley’s attention first. She always noticed height, being 5’4” herself it seemed as though the whole world loomed above her. A blonde about Hadley’s height was handing wet dishes to the brunette their backs to Hadley and the living room, and a third girl with wildly curly hair sat on a barstool facing Hadley’s direction.

Hadley wasted no time and demanded, “Excuse me- Where am I?”

All the girls turned sharply at the unfamiliar voice. They stared briefly at her and then back at each other.

“I would really like to know where the hell I am, who you are,” she used both hands to gesture at the girls, “where these clothes came from,” she gripped at her pajama bottoms, "and how I got here." Hadley held her hands in the air questioning and let them drop forcefully down at her sides, her palms slapping against her thighs. She winced at the contact, remembering how sore she was.

“I am new as well.” A thick Eastern European accent replied to Hadley, an attempt at comfort. It was the brunette with the long silky hair who had been taking the dried dishes from the blonde. She gently placed the dish on the counter and started walking towards Hadley.

Hadley protested with an outstretched arm, “Don’t.” The brunette stopped. Hadley glared at the approaching girl, “I want answers.”

A loud sigh came from the blonde. She grabbed a wet coffee cup and began to dry it and replied to Hadley after rolling her eyes, “Good God you’re dramatic. You’re in prison. We don’t know how the hell you got here- it’s prison, you probably got arrested.”

“Skylar-” Harper scolded.

“What!” Skylar snapped at Harper and turned back to Hadley, “The clothes were put on you- we all have similar outfits, like the lab rats we are- and my name is Skylar. The sweet Ukranian you almost attacked with those lasers shooting from your eyes is Andelyn, and that’s Harper.” She gestured to each girl as she introduced them and gave a dramatic sweep of the arm towards Hadley. “Your turn.”

Everything about Skylar’s tone was sarcastic and Hadley couldn’t stand her already. She dropped her arm and relaxed a little. “Hadley.” Her voice came out scratchy and she cleared her throat, “my name is Hadley.”

'Prison?' Hadley thought, her mind suddenly flooded with memories; the cold handcuffs, the long plane ride, the strong arms, the grey shirts. 

“You can come in, Hadley. We don’t bite.” Skylar interrupted Hadley's thoughts. She was abrupt and emphasized Hadley’s name in a way that annoyed her. She turned her back to Hadley to finish drying dishes. Skylar wore tight grey workout capris and a white razorback tank top with subtle gold horizontal stripes, the smirk she donned in addition to her attire was clearly her favorite accessory.

“Well Skylar does, but if you’re nice she won’t leave marks.” Harper grinned at Skylar and gave her a playful kick.

Skylar dried her hands on the hand towel she had been holding and gently hit Harper with it, then tossed it on the counter. Harper picked it up after her and hung it on the handle of the oven.

“You don’t have to do that, Harper, that’s what we have the maid for.” A subtle bitterness laced all of Skylar’s words.

“And you didn’t have to do the dishes,” Harper chirped back.

Hadley walked slowly into the grand kitchen, skepticism melting away, and pulled out a barstool, seating herself on it, and behind a bar, separating herself a bit from the girls in the kitchen. She liked Harper. She couldn’t figure out why, but she knew she could trust her.

“A maid? I thought this was prison.”

“Prison is an easier way to say ‘brain-washing-house’ and the maid cleans so we can ‘continue in our uninterrupted leisure time'” Skylar turned back to Hadley and leaned on her forearms onto the counter squaring off to face Hadley, a challenge of sorts. “So now that you know you're in prison, why are you here?”

Andy spoke up, her gentle voice a sharp contrast to Skylar’s sandpaper sentences. “Are you hungry? Do you want some coffee?”

“I am, actually.” Hadley replied breaking eye contact with her challenger and looking towards the concerned party, “Coffee sounds wonderful, Andelyn, thank you.”

“You can call me Andy, all my friends do,” Andy smiled at Hadley, which somehow seemed to soften even the angriest parts of Hadley’s mind, and reached into a cabinet for a large mug.

“Cream?” Harper offered as she stood up and reached for the fridge. Hadley nodded and stuck a half-smile on her face. Within moments there was a steaming mug of coffee and a packet of vanilla yogurt in front of her. Harper and Andy delivered the nourishment with smiles.

“Do you remember what could have brought you here? Any inklings?” Skylar hadn’t budged. Andelyn lingered next to her with a fresh mug of coffee in her hands, and Harper made her way around the counter, bringing her stool with her, and perched at a polite distance from Hadley. Hadley took a sip of the coffee and closed her eyes as the warmth spread through her. She instinctively relaxed her shoulders, not realizing how tense she was until that moment. As she finished her sip she gave a small nod and smile of approval to Andelyn. She peeled back the cover of the yogurt, aware of the eyes on her, but relishing in a moment of silence. The small movement that brought pain to her arms, she winced but the simple smell of vanilla and dairy awakened her hunger and it overpowered any other pain. She was eager to begin eating. She dug her spoon into the cup, spooned the food into her mouth, dropped the spoon back into the cup and lifted her eyes to meet Sklyar’s.

"Are you ignoring me?" Skylar challenged. 

“I remember being arrested in a college classroom at the Cambridge University,” she spoke emphasizing every word and glaring at Skylar. Hadley noticed a smile appeared on Harper’s face. “I remember being held overnight at a police station while they figured out my passport and paperwork and all that,” She paused taking another bite of yogurt. “They put me on a plane, flew me back, I was picked up at the terminal by strong, big guys wearing green jackets and put into a car. Everything after that is a little fuzzy, but I’m sore as hell and a little lost. I thought people who got in trouble with the law became farmers and factory workers?” Hadley took a few quick bites of her yogurt and wrinkled her brows as she shook her head in confusion. Andelyn kept her gaze low and traced her fingers around her coffee cup while nursing her warm beverage. Harper and Skylar exchanged glances as Hadley spoke.

“Where I grew up when people got in trouble with the law, they disappeared for a while and then when we saw them again they were dirty from factory work or sun-burned from field work. Why am I in a freakin’ mansion?” Hadley had been shaking her spoon pointedly for emphasis while she was talking, her tone rose and as she finished speaking she slammed her spoon down on the counter. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose, as she exhaled she wrapped her hands around her mug and put it to her lips, inhaling the steam, letting it relax her. She took a sip and opened her eyes and looked at Harper and Skylar expectantly.

“What? You two know something. I can tell, I can see it in your eyes, in your little glances. What is it? What do you know? I want to know everything.”

Harper spoke first, “We don’t know everything, Hadley. But we’ll tell you what we do know.”

“Like hell we will.” Skylar stood up straight and faced Harper. “How do we know she isn’t some freakin' spy?”

Hadley set down her coffee mug, “Excuse me- a SPY? I don’t even know where I am how could I be a-”

Skylar leaned closer to Hadley but turned her volume up, “A spy would not tell us they were a spy!”

Harper stood quickly and spoke, but her tone remained as calm as it was when she offered Hadley cream for her coffee, “Skylar. Stop it now. Come with me.”
Skylar stood her ground for a beat staring Hadley down, but as Harper came next to her and touched her arm, she turned and strode out of the room. Harper followed without a sound.

Hadley sighed slowly and again released the tension she didn’t realize she was holding in her shoulders. She looked at Andelyn, but could only offer the slight upturned corners of her mouth before dropping her gaze.

“Would you like more?” Andy nodded her head to Hadley’s coffee as dumped the remnants of her own cup in the sink and set the cup down.

“No, but thank you.” Hadley took another sip and as she set her cup down, she picked up her spoon and swirled it around in her yogurt, her mind wandering. Harper and Skylar must have retreated far enough that they could not be heard because silence filled the kitchen.

“I was arrested at a university as well,” Andy offered the information like a peace treaty.

Hadley’s eyes came up and met Andy’s. “Really?”

Andy nodded.

“I didn’t realize this... system was international. Actually, to be honest, I thought it was the whole world and it wasn’t until I came across that University in my gap year that I realized our system might have been the only one like it. Was it in your country?”

“No. Our system in Ukraine is very different. This is not what prison looks like," Andelyn gave an awkward chuckle. "

"But something was starting to change. Fewer people went to work, teachers were taken away for 'training' and many universities began to close," she continued, "There were so many students who did not want this. So we made ourselves heard. We all protested for weeks before we were being arrested. The prison system in the Ukraine is- it is not like this," her emphasis was more sad the second time she said it, "And the Ukraine wants-”

“But why did they- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interuppt.”

"No, please ask."

"Why were you sent here?"

“I was sent with more people, it is not just me. There are nine of us here from Ukraine. They want us to be the pioneers of the new lifestyle, the new system, so they send us here to be trained.”

“Trained? Are you sure it isn't to be brainwashed?”

Andelyn just shrugged. “I cannot know their minds. I only know what I guess and what I am told. Which is not a lot.”

Harper walked back into the room without Skylar, “Skylar doesn’t trust easily, Hadley. I can apologize for her, but she would hate that. She apologizes when she believes an apology is necessary.”

Hadley shrugged and finished the last of her coffee. “Are there any pain killers in this house?”

Harper nodded and started towards a cabinet next to the refrigerator. She brought down the medicine and prepared a glass of water for Hadley. As Harper handed everything to her, Hadley spoke, “I’m not a spy, you know.”

“I believe you,” Andelyn blurted out.

“So do I” Harper agreed. She leaned on the kitchen counter. “Which is why I’m going to tell you everything I know.” 

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Shea

Can't wait to see this on my bookshelf in hardback!

Julie

I really need to know what happens next. This teasing is kinda killing me.

Katie

OH EM GEE. Post another chapter, dang it.

This is gooooooood, Liz.

Elizabeth

Thank you so much Dani for reading!! I very much appreciate your comment and I am SO glad you're enjoying what you're reading!!

Dani Cherrie

Hey Lizz, I'm really enjoying the read. love the way you build the story so the picture keeps changing. good work & looking forward to seeing how the plot develops

Chapter Two

“I grew up with parents in the government. They were accountants, but they were always at The Dome. They loved it there. They were political junkies, and actually they were part of the original Elite who campaigned for The Choice.”

“I am sorry to interrupt, but I do not know some of these words.” Andelyn had followed Harper and Hadley into the living room and sat on the couch next to Hadley.

“Well The Dome-”

“Yes The Dome is your building for all the officials of the government. But what is ‘Elite’ and what is ‘The Choice’ - these I do not know.”

Hadley started before Harper could, “The Elite is what anyone who works in The Dome is called. They’re the highest tier of government worker. It ranges from being on the Executive Team to being an accountant,” She gestured to Harper, “or a secretary. If you work in The Dome and you wear a white coat, you are part of The Elite.”

“White is a government color. And blue and gold? Like what we wear?” Andelyn pinched the fabric of her navy blue pajamas between her fingers.

“Yes. Our school colors were red and gold. Kindergarden through high school- the red basically represented our schooling years.”

Andy nodded in understanding and motioned for Harper to continue.

Harper smiled,“I did grade school like everyone else, but my after school activities were always in The Dome. I did homework while my parents worked after normal work hours, and while they attended meetings. I played with the other Elite kids, and when I got older, I was an unofficial intern. Everyone called me ‘the intern’ and if for some reason I wasn’t there after school, people would ask my parents or other Elite “Hey, where’s the intern?” I was always around. And you know what? I loved it. I fit there. I excelled in school, but I excelled even more at The Dome. And I didn’t just do well, I loved being there. I loved answering phones, or taking notes for meetings, and even doing accountant work with my parents. It was exciting to be in the know. I knew even before I graduated that I was going to spend my gap year at The Dome as a real intern.”

Hadley interrupted, “Did you seriously skip your gap year?”

Harper smiled and nodded slowly.

“Talk about missing out.”

“I had no interest in travel, no reason to go anywhere. I didn’t think I was missing out on anything. I loved being there and they loved me. I had multiple meetings with the Executive Team right around graduation time about it and actually, they offered me my position the day I graduated.”

Hadley sat forward and squinted at Harper. “I’m sorry, hold on. You were Elite? Like not just Elite kid, but you actually joined the team?”

Harper nodded slowly again.

“Then why-”

“Oh that’s juicy.” A voice came from the bottom of the stairs. All the girls twisted their heads to see Skylar with a pair of earbuds in her ears, a small mp3 player strapped to her arm, in her running shoes to complete the outfit.

“You’re allowed to leave the house and just go for a run?” Hadley looked around the room in confusion. “This isn’t house arrest?”

“Nah- they let us out of our cage for fresh air if we want it. We’re actually located on a large chunk of Elite-owned property. It’s mostly forest, but we have boundaries and as long as we don’t cross them, we get to keep our heads.” Skylar smiled and tilted her head to emphasize her sarcasm.

“Go on your run,” Harper shooed Skylar out. “Your bitterness is taking up too much space.”

Skylar blew Harper a kiss and practically skipped out the front door.

“Please continue your story,” Andelyn implored, “I, too, would like to know how a person of The Dome came to a prison house.”

The TV screen that should have been a wall came to life next to the girls. Hadley jerked in surprise but Andy and Harper didn’t flinch. Pictures flashed but no sound came from any speakers.

“You might be annoyed with my questions, but why is there no sound coming from the television?”

Harper dished out the biggest smile that Hadley had seen on her face yet and actually laughed a little, “That is a funny story,” She pointed to Andelyn, “Andy, here, is a bit of a genius and actually cut the sound off. What’s playing now comes on every day at 1:00pm. It’s brainwashing crap. Andy is still working on a way to hack the screen so it doesn’t even turn on. We never watch it.”

Andelyn beamed, “We made a decision to always choose conversation over television. We will not be one of them.” Her accent emphasized her point and Hadley couldn’t help but smile. She liked these girls. She knew she could trust them and she sensed she would love them. Her eyes were drawn to the screen. Images of students graduating high school, packing bags, boarding planes, partying on beaches all over the world, and then returning home to more parties, a lifestyle of parties. Video footage played of those returned students meeting with Elite and leaving the meeting happy. It showed those individuals living lives of leisure, sleeping in, working out, lounging by a pool. Statistics flashed on a screen of people living longer lives in the past 20 years than they ever have because there was no stress from work, no worries about anything, etc... Hadley tore her eyes from the screen sickened by the propaganda so many ingested as truth.

“How long were you Elite, Harper?”

“I was on a Junior Executive Team for four years and the day my meeting came up to move up in the ranks, I was accused of treason.”

Hadley’s voice was barely above a whisper, but her shock was evident “What?”

“I cannot believe...” Andelyn shook her head unable to finish her sentence.

Harpers gaze fell to her hands, where she picked at the skin around her fingernails, a poor habit she’d been unable to kick, as she recalled the events of that day.

“Harper, welcome.” A tall, thin gentleman seated at the head of the of the table smiled and nodded as Harper entered the room.

“Thank you, Arman.” Harper uncrossed her hands as she strode into the room. Greeting all five Executive Team members with a polite smile and nod, she pulled out the empty chair at end the of long table and sat.

She had grown up watching these people work alongside her parents. Some of them had been at her family dinners, their holiday parties, her birthday parties. And today, today she would join them. Despite her confidence about her next step, anxiety had found it’s way to accompany her on her big day.

“Our agenda today was very simple, Harper,” A blonde lady, Leigh, sitting to the right of Arman started the meeting. “We have your file here,” Leigh smoothed her hand over a thin olive green folder, “and we had planned on reviewing it, asking a few questions, and offering you a job.” Leigh gave her a big, gentle grin and Harper smiled back, her eyes shining. It wouldn’t be until later that she realized the strange wording in Leigh’s introduction.

“But we’ve had a tip from a very reliable source,” another Executive Team member, Parker, chipped in, “that you’re in cahoots with an underground anti-governmental organization. Treason is not rewarded, and will not be tolerated. I speak on behalf of the entire Executive Team when I say that we are all extremely disappointed. We had very high hopes for you, Harper. We believed you could have been one of the most brilliant minds to step foot on this Team.”

“Did you ever find out who the tip off was from?” Hadley inquired.

Harper shook her head, “I have a few guesses but the point is moot. I WAS involved with an underground anti-governmental organization, just not the one they accused me of.”

“WHAT?” Hadley leaned forward so far she almost fell forward off the couch.

“Two anti-government groups? But right under the nose of everyone?” Andelyn’s face crinkled in confusion.

“Quite a few organizations exist, actually, Andelyn. I was part of the largest group that was working with the other groups in the area, and out of the state to form an ultra-alliance. The one they accused me of, I found out later from a good friend, was one of the smaller local groups that apparently had a mole who found out my position within the Elite, and my position within the group. Not many Elite on the level I was on join anti-Elite groups. In fact, it's mostly unheard of. Usually at that level everyone is so committed that 'anti-Elite' is completely unheard of.”

“So they just threw you in prison without letting you explain?”

“What was there to explain, Hadley? I WAS involved in an underground anti-Elite group. To lie and defend myself would have been pointless.”

"Yeah, but-"

"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Hadley. But there was no 'but' anything. They could have killed me. Prison was kind." 

Hadley fell silent and settled for nodding in response.

“This is a lot for you all at once, I know. Maybe we could talk about you,” offered Harper.

“Sure, but you’ll need to ask questions. I’m honestly not sure where to start.”

“Did you grow up around here?”

“I... don’t know where I am, so I don’t know.”

“Right,” Harper chuckled without the grace of a practiced response, which is the first time Hadley had seen her do something quite so awkward. Harper exuded an air of natural ease. “I’ll try a little more recent- do you have any ideas why you’re so sore?”

“No- I told you it was fuzzy after the car.” There was a beat before it registered with Hadley, “Might you know, Harper?”

“Hunters can be a little rough...”

“Hunters?”

“I am afraid I do not know what is a Hunter,” Andelyn chimed in after Hadley.

“Hunters are basically the army of the Elite. They do their dirty work. They were the ones who brought you from the airport, and they aren't known for their soft touch. If the Hunters took you from place to place or detained you for any length of time and attempted interrogation...”

“Interrogation?! What would they have to ask me about? I had attended maybe two months of classes and all of a sudden one day I’m in cuffs and being flown back to the States and being interrogated?” Hadley became more confused and angry as she spoke, her own words raising more questions than she started with.

“From what I know- and it isn’t much because I was only Junior Exec and they didn’t tell us much- the Elite are working towards making alliances with other countries. You mentioned you had been at Cambridge in England. That's one of the countries they’re attempting an alliance with. I try to keep up with in the paper we get here, and I've read a few things about a treaty or agreement of some kind, but Andelyn’s arrival was the first I really heard of how things were going, and now that I’m hearing your story, I honestly believe it could be any day now.”

“So they thought I was gathering inside information? Or just that I was some kind of traitor who deserved to be punished?”

“Who knows with Hunters. They’re heartless.”

 

The girls spent a few more moments talking, but Hadley was exhausted and announced that she would be going upstairs for a short while and would someone come get her for lunch? She needed to process, to think, to remember, to review. She crawled into her bed and let her mind go over and over all the things she had heard since she woke up. Her thoughts slipped away and her eyes drifted shut to draw her into a sleep she did not realize she had needed.

When Hadley descended the stairs for the second time on her first day in the house, it was near dinner time.

“We tried to wake you for lunch, but it seems your body needed rest more than food.” Harper sat alone at the table and smiled at Hadley as she made her way down the stairs.

“Clearly my body is in survival mode. I think I only woke up because I feel like there is a giant hole in my stomach demanding to be filled.” Hadley clutched at her stomach with a touch of drama, but smiled at Harper. “Can I just look for something I want?”

“Oh yes. Make yourself at home. Speaking of- did they tell you how long you were in for?”

Hadley started rummaging through the cabinets and found quite a collection of snacks. She settled on popcorn and opened the pack, sticking the bag in the microwave.

“I think the words were, ‘until the job is done.’”

“Ha. I wonder if you were meant to hear that.”

“Oh I doubt it. But I like to make a habit of eavesdropping if I can. Keeps me informed.” The girls shared a  chuckle as Hadley returned the question.

“Indefinitely. They knew the worst thing for me would be to place me as far from everything as they could.”

“Oh. How far away from everything are we?”

“Well. We’re on a fairly large plot of land which neighbors three more plots of land with prison houses, and when you do finally reach the road, there’s still a substantial drive down the mountain that we’re nestled on.”

Hadley would have rushed to the window to see said mountains, but her popcorn was done, so she restrained herself and brought out the bag, opened it and let the warm buttery smell wash over her. She brought the warm snack to the table and sat next to Harper, opening the bag to let the steam escape and to imply that she was ready to share her snack. The two girls snacked and chatted, and Hadley began to feel refreshed, body and soul. Her heart swelled with gratitude to have someone like Harper while she was stuck here. The evening passed into night, the sun bid farewell to the rest of the world as Andelyn and Skylar joined Harper and Hadley in the kitchen. When the cook arrived, the girls decided to treat themselves by allowing someone to cook for them.

“Well that’s a first,” the cook, a young brunette with bright green eyes, smiled wide excited by her job prospect.

Harper quickly distributed glasses to all five girls in the room and filled their cups with water. She raised her glass to propose a toast, “To firsts.”

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Chapter Three

The girls fell into an easy routine. Harper was awake before everyone else. Her routine of waking early to have some alone time before going into work was not easy to break. But she enjoyed being up with the sun and having the house to herself for a few hours. She prepared the coffee for everyone and if she was in the mood, she cooked breakfast as well. She established herself as the house mother, taking care of others, usually before herself.

Andelyn usually woke next, although she was adjusted to the time zone after two months, she too enjoyed the quiet morning hours. Not many words typically passed between the girls. They drank their coffee and enjoyed each others silence. Andelyn would fetch the newspaper that was always in their driveway, although none of them knew how it got there, and she and Harper would share sections and read what was going on in the outside world. They both agreed that half of the contents were intended for brainwashing, but at least it kept them current.

Hadley would usually wake next, followed closely by Skylar, and where Skylar was, conversation followed. The quiet hours of the morning were over, and the girls always found something to chat about. The tension between the Hadley and Skylar ebbed and flowed with the days and the moods. Skylar kept her distance, both emotionally and physically. Hadley didn't make any moves that Skylar didn't make first. 

They always lingered at the table after breakfast. Their love for coffee and their growing love for each other kept the conversations flowing like a river those first few weeks. The girls discovered new things about each other and laughter was a staple when they were gathered at the table. They would talk until lunch and then they would cook lunch together, dismissing the cook that came to their house to fix all their meals. They would eat together again and linger over their empty plates, catching up on the years they had missed from each others lives. They told childhood stories, horror stories from their middle school years and tales from high school years filled with romantic mishaps and embarrassing parent moments.

Their afternoons and early evenings were spent with various activities. The girls believed in staying active. Skye would leave for hours at a time for a jog or just unaccounted for activity. Often if it was the latter, Skylar and Harper would disappear for an hour or so when she returned. Andelyn would go for walks, or just lounge in the backyard. Hadley would spend time with Harper or Andelyn on walks or cleaning around the house, and occasionally go on a jog with Skylar, although that was more rare. In the evening, the girls would cook together and occasionally allow their cook to make dinner, and after dinner they would play cards or board games; activities they could all agree on.

But Hadley often found herself longing for books, especially before she fell asleep at night, which she had full access to at Cambridge. Reading the newspaper had brought little joy, the world seemed to be falling apart behind a mask of prosperity. The truth was irrelevant, people were told what the Elite wanted them to know. She longed for worlds she didn’t belong to and sentences like poetry. She often fell asleep at night reliving plots and characters that she had once visited, in a life that seemed so far away.

Two months passed with this lifestyle. Some semblance of normalcy for this new life for Hadley was beginning to form.

Hadley woke one morning to an urgent knock on her door and Skylar’s voice, “Get up. House meeting- now.” She quickly threw on a thin, navy robe she had grown fond of and hurried downstairs to find everyone at the table in the kitchen.

“What’s going on?”

Before Hadley could make it all the way to her seat, Harper held out the newspaper to her. Hadley took it and checked her roommates faces.

“What am I reading?”

“You wouldn’t miss if it you just looked at the damn paper,” Skylar said, an edge to her voice.

The headline “STATES MAKE ALLIANCE OFFICIAL WITH FRANCE, UNITED KINGDOM, AND UKRAINE” screamed at Hadley as she unfolded the paper and looked down.

“What does this mean?”

“Probably the end of the world,” Skylar chimed in. Hadley rolled her eyes, annoyed at Skylar’s nonchalance, even if it was sarcastic, at what seemed to be a huge news issue.

“That’s a pretty loaded question, Hadley. It means a lot of things for a lot of people,” Harper responded.

“Okay, I'll start small. Does this mean that the other countries will start offering The Choice after high school graduation?”

Harper paused, “If you think about it Hadley, the choice doesn’t really happen until after our gap year.”

“Will they get offered a gap year?”

“I believe so.”

“Why do you believe so?”

Harper sighed and Skylar jumped in before Harper could continue, “What do you think the purpose of the gap year is?”

Hadley realized she had never thought much about it, but now that she was, she didn’t know. She shook her head.

“Where did you go on your gap year, Had?”

“Europe, but I mostly stayed in England.”

“Did you know that statistics show 90% of those who take their gap year- and who would honestly pass up their gap year-”

Harper raised her hand, but Skylar dismissed her with a wave of her hand. “go to a beach or an island or a country where they can party all year. They make The Choice when they get back.”

“Will someone tell me what this Choice is?” Andelyn’s voice was quiet, but powerful enough to interrupt the conversation flow.

Harper cleared her throat and when it looked like no one would answer she shifted in her seat and spoke, “It’s the choice to pursue your education or ‘live your dream life’ by not continuing your education or working.”

“But if they do not work, what do they do all day?” Andelyn asked.

“Whatever you want to do. The world is your oyster,” Hadley responded sarcasm thick on her words, thinking of her family and her neighborhood and the way she grew up.

“And if they do not work, how do they make money?”

“Everything is free. Workers aren’t paid anywhere in The States because they’re criminals so no one is making money. I don’t know, somewhere along the way, money transactions stopped being a thing,” Hadley responded, realizing she had never thought much about it, she had always just gone with the flow of things, nor had she ever needed to explain it to someone. Everyone just did what everyone else did. Life was the way it was because that’s how it had always been. But hearing herself explain it all brought more questions than comfort. 

“And what if your dream is to pursue your education?” Andelyn’s question silenced Hadley. It was as if Andelyn spoke exactly what she had been thinking her whole life, but somehow could never find the words.

“I have some theories about what happens to people with dreams to pursue education, and I know quite a few people from those underground groups who had those dreams, made it into the Elite, and were able to ‘use’ their Elite privileges for access to books and learning materials. But they never spoke up about them, so they lived relatively normal lives, and were able to live out their dreams.” Harper explained.

"But in a way that took dreams from other people," Andelyn wasn't asking, she seemed to grasp the concept.

“So yeah, I think it’s very likely the other countries will adopt this,” Skylar closed out the silence and brought the original question to a close. Even through the jungle of her bitterness there landed a seed of truth.

And suddenly as if a lightbulb had gone off, Hadley started to understand.“This is why you started attending those anti-Elite meetings, Harper, isn’t it? You saw the wide-scale manipulation.” Harper nodded in response, and Hadley continued, “They’re not actually giving us a ‘Choice’ are they?”

Harper gave a small shrug, “It can’t be proven.”

“But who has ever seen a college or university open around here? The ones where I grew up were completely abandoned. But everyone who came back from their gap year just picked up where they left off, minus the school,” Hadley was on a roll, and picked up the newspaper again to continue reading hoping for a clue of some kind. 

“In Kiev, they were closing all of the universities, students were being arrested-” Andelyn started, offering what she knew and attempting to piece the puzzle together herself.

“Just like what happened in England,” Hadley interjected.

“And many of us felt they were taking away our right to education,” Andelyn explained.

“They are,” Skylar came in, “That’s why they started all this. How else can you control people on a mass level than by taking away something so huge. Before this started, almost everyone went to college, didn’t you listen when they went over the story in school? ‘95% of people chose to live their dream, and the other 5% have been hard at work, serving to make your dream come true,’” Skylar mocked a line from a textbook by memory. Hadley did recall something about this in school, but government and the history of her own country were not her top interests.

“So this system,” Hadley continued trying to put it all together, “takes the power from the people, and places it in the hands of whoever is in the Elite?”

Skylar nodded in response.

“And that’s what these countries are looking for? Power?” Hadley asked.

“Knowledge is power and power should be limited,” Harper said quietly.

“What?” Hadley and the other girls turned her Harper.

“That’s the foundation for the Elite. Every time we heard the ‘founding father’s’ story, they reminded us that this began because not everyone deserves power, so not everyone deserves education,” Harper told them.

“Which is about as messed up as it gets,” Skylar commented.

“But they educate us for 13 years?” Hadley felt like every corner she turned held a new scrap of information and more questions.

“Exactly,” Harpers eyes told Hadley that she was on the right trail.

“So we can’t protest that they don’t believe in education,” Skylar pointed out. Hadley’s stomach churned at this.

“I am very confused by all of this talk. I just-” Andelyn’s voice came out quiet, marked with fear, “I must know what this means for me.”

Andelyn looked down, spending too much time looking at her fingernails, and avoiding anyones gaze. Skylar and Hadley exchanged glances and their eyes both landed on Harper. Harper leaned across and placed her hands on top of Andelyn’s.

“I’m sorry Andy, I don’t know what this means for you. But I- we are here for you.”

Hadley and Skylar nodded as Andelyn looked up at them and gave a half smile.

“Will I have to leave here? I want to stay with you. If you leave, I will leave. But I cannot be alone,” tears fell from Andelyn’s eyes and splashed onto Harper’s hands.

"They didn't tell you what this training process would look like for you?" Hadley asked, careful to keep her own tone even so as not to worry Andelyn more. Andelyn shook her head no. 

“Skylar, will you take her upstairs?” Harper requested. Skylar nodded and wrapped her arms around Andelyn's shoulders, acting as the big sister, and guided her upstairs.

“Well that was sweet of her,” Hadley retorted.

“She has a soft spot, although it’s unpredictable at best.”

Hadley waited a beat and kept her voice low, “What is going to happen to Andelyn?”

Harper shrugged, her volume matching Hadley's, “Even if I knew, I couldn’t stop it or change it.”

A heaviness hung in the air around the house for days and Hadley’s mind never stopped going a million miles a minute. One afternoon she approached Harper, sitting down next to her on a couch in the living room.

“It’s about the free will, isn’t it, Harper? The freedom to make our own choices.”

Harper looked up from the newspaper she had been scanning, “I believe so, Hadley.”

“They limit our knowledge by limiting our choices. They let us believe we are making choices and that we have power over our own lives, but we don’t, do we?”

“You know I was invited to one anti-Elite meeting. A friend told me we were going to hang out at their house, but we needed to make a stop first. I didn’t think anything of it at the time of course, but when I stepped into the room I knew and everything in me was against it.”

“Why did you stay?”

“I heard them.”

Hadley waited through Harper's silence. 

“I heard them talking about the freedom of choice, and the things their parents had experienced, and their friends when they chose a lifestyle not endorsed by the Elite. It was enough to get me thinking. Their leader was inspirational, the way he spoke brought everyone in the room to life. He encouraged them to keep the faith, that their day would come. After I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

She paused again, taking a deep and steady breath before continuing.

“I felt like my world crumbled when I realized the manipulation. Everything I had ever known was actually based on lies, and lots of them, and I had so many questions. And I was angry, and I had a hard time hiding it. I'm actually surprised I didn't get caught earlier. The fire in my chest took almost months to die down to embers, but those embers always kept me fighting. Before the fire died though, I felt like it burned through every piece of me. It wasn't just my own life, it was the lives of everyone around me who had been manipulated and controlled," Harper waited a beat before she continued, "I wanted to let you know I understand how you might be feeling right now.”

“But I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

 She leaned into her friend Harper, resting her head upon her shoulder, steadying herself against the waves that crashed against her brain, a never ending sea of information.

The sound of screams reached Hadley’s ears and became an alarm clock to her deep sleep. The noise started as if coming from her dream, and her body woke her when the screams didn’t stop. As Hadley came to awareness and only then realized the screams were coming from the next room. Hadley jumped out of bed and rushed toward the sound. Although the hall was dark, as soon as she swung her door open, she saw a large male figure dragging a female figure across the threshold of a bedroom and down the hallway. She noticed all the doors on that floor, Andelyn’s stood wide open and Skye and Harper were only seconds behind Hadley .

“It’s Andelyn.” Hadley rushed toward the stairs with Skylar and Harper close on her heels. The girls moved quickly, motivated by Andelyn’s muffled screams behind the strangers hand, but the man was quicker. Once he made it down the steps, Hadley watched him throw Andy over his shoulder and step outside, her screams now at full volume, the trees not absorbing any of the sound. She called for her roommates, and everytime Andelyn screamed her name, Hadley felt as though someone were ripping at the edges of her heart, pulling it in two directions, tearing it to an unmendable state.

They reached the door in enough time to see Andelyn get stuffed into the jeep. The man that had taken her turned back to the house and the moonlight allowed the girls to see the smirk that spread across his face. As he settled himself in the passenger seat, Skylar launched past Hadley out the front door and flew at the car, reaching it in enough time to grab the handle and yank open the door. She was greeted to a boot slamming into her chest, causing her to fly backward and land hard on the concrete behind her. Hadley hurried out to Skylar as the door closed and screeched away. The jeep flew out of their driveway and out of the gates that surrounded their large house. 

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Chapter Four

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Chapter Five

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Chapter Six

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Chapter Seven

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Chapter Eight

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Chapter Nine

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Chapter Ten

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Chapter Eleven

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Chapter Twelve

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Chapter Thirteen

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Chapter Fourteen

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Chapter Fifteen

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Chapter Sixteen

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Chapter Seventeen

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Chapter Eighteen

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Chapter Nineteen

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Chapter Twenty

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Chapter Twenty-One

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~

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